Trust In Food’s latest report, Ready or Not? Agricultural Carbon Markets and U.S. Farmers, is meant as a showcase of how research and data can suggest solutions to help scale carbon market participation—and how those insights, combined with deep understanding of the farmer perspective, can provide strategies to address the barriers that these markets face.
But what do farmers themselves have to say about their perspectives?
Before the report’s publication, it was one of Trust In Food’s top priorities to reach out to producer thought leaders for feedback and make sure that the team’s understanding of the picture the data showed truly reflected the lived experiences of growers in the field.
“From where I’m standing as a multi-generation farmer, Trust In Food’s carbon market report hits all the right notes. The sections explaining how producers think about additionality and see these offerings as not coming from, or delivering, mutual values were spot on to what I’ve been feeling and hearing from others in ag.
Even though farmers are the true vendors for the land and ecosystem services that get packaged as carbon credits, clean energy leases and the like, many marketplaces and programs are built like farmers are the customers, with contracts dictated rather than built together from the ground up. Maybe there’s room for a go-between to help incentive providers really understand the farmer and landowner perspective.”—Ray Gaesser, Iowa row crop farmer
“This is very well done with valid information that shows how much work has to be done in this arena. The farmer is not going to participate until the playing field has been leveled and it is fair for everyone.”—Rick Clark, Indiana row crop farmer and Farm Journal Carbon Council member
While carbon sequestered by the acre with practices such as cover crops are often the focus of carbon market platforms, ranchers and livestock producers are also positioned to improve greenhouse gas emissions and provide ecosystem services to their land. They share other producers’ need to establish a trust relationship with the organizations providing new opportunities—and meeting that need can show dramatic results.
“I agree with the conclusions in Trust In Food’s carbon market report across the board. In our area, it’s typical for only 17% of producers to participate in NRCS and other programs, but in my home conservation district specifically, our community’s participation rate is 90%. If you asked if we started off as skeptical of the value of these programs as anyone in small-town Wyoming, you would be right, but the difference is in decades of trust and expertise built up between us and our local resources.
What producers need to build that trust with environmental services markets are clear guidelines about how the benefits we provide are being measured, assurance that they are looking at the landscape and what it provides with more than just carbon in mind (as we do), and clear signals—like good prices, offerings of more than just carbon credits, and more—that they understand what we value.”—Pat O’Toole, Wyoming cattle and sheep rancher
Many of the producers we reached out to resonated deeply with these messages, following up with multiple conversations and the hope that the report’s publication would help farmers be heard in the overall narrative being woven around these opportunities. Their ideas for change have implications even beyond the report’s findings:
“I think [Trust In Food’s] paper is well-done. I agree with most everything I read. I especially cringe when we talk about ‘additionality.’ I don’t qualify for most carbon markets simply because I have already been doing these practices. But in theory, each and every crop I grow is sequestering additional carbon. So, that is indeed a huge impediment for some farmers to engage with private marketers.
Secondly, I do think the acceptance of this new market opportunity is very generational. My baby boomer generation is very untrusting and reluctant to share data, not knowing where that data will end up. But my son, who is a millennial, is quite willing to share data and look upon the total picture for trends and answers.
Third, tracking carbon sequestration is difficult today because of a lack of a standard metric that all are using. About the only practical thing we as farmers can do currently is pay attention to our organic matter, and measure if it is increasing over time. Of the half-dozen private marketers of carbon credits, most all have a different standard, and contracts vary considerably as far as length of the contract.
And finally, we have to get away from the one-size-fits-all mentality as we develop these markets. We must look beyond strictly carbon, and be more inclusive with other ecosystem services. Most of the practices that can sequester carbon can also scavenge excess nutrients and provide enormous benefits for water quality. Also, these practices can stretch water usage by limiting evaporation.
I wish we could focus more on being “climate-smart” rather than focusing only on carbon. I think if we broadened the conversation to be broader with other ecosystem services we could include more parts of the country where cover crops can’t be used because of a lack of available water.
But overall, this is an excellent paper to go forward in developing carbon markets. Your survey results are very real, and I hear the same things in my conversations with farmers. Great work!”—Fred Yoder, Ohio row crop farmer
“I’ve known of Trust In Food since Amy Skoczlas Cole, who brought me into regenerative ag podcasting, came on board. The carbon report is spot on and does a good job of highlighting some of the key issues with today’s carbon programs. Farmers need to trust carbon initiatives and understand how these programs fit to improve their family businesses. Relationships are one of the most powerful components of American agriculture, rivaled by farmer innovation. Farmers continually innovate to improve their farm businesses, which typically leads to a pigeonholed focus on yield and productivity. However, this is an important focus because farmers get paid based on their productivity. We need to enable farmer innovation and capitalistic systems within ecosystem service markets if we want creativity and competition to thrive. The current markets are designed around checking a box, doing the bare minimum to implement a new practice, and doing the basics needed to hopefully keep a couple dollars on the bottom line out of the low payment from participating. The goal should be carbon neutrality or carbon negative agricultural systems. To enable this, markets must be structured to pay farmers based on their contribution to a company’s calculated low carbon goal.
My family began using no-till in 1978 and added cover crops in 2013. Our 7th generation Iowa farm has noticed a pesticide use reduction of up to 75%, a fertilizer use reduction of 50%, and we’ve built our soil organic carbon to a six-inch depth at a rate of 4.9 metric tons of carbon per acre per year. I want to know my real, annual carbon footprint, and am working on this, however, the calculation above is based on the Organic Matter data we’ve collected over time. I see regenerative ag as a solution for family farm profitability and year-to-year resilience as well as a deliverer of a bonus set of outcomes: environmental gains. I’m fine with not being able to participate in carbon initiatives to the fullest because of the current definition of additionality, however, my concern is for corporations attempting to attain their GHG goals… farms like mine can’t participate as part of their solution.
The report points out the harsh truth: Essentially all farmers know about carbon initiatives, and basically no one is pursuing a contract to participate. Something needs to change, and someone needs to take the lead to help fix the registry rules or take the initiative to build programs focused on supply chains with low carbon agricultural products. Farmers need to be able to sell something real, be rewarded based on their net contribution, and get monetary value that leaves dollars in their pocket to adequately compensate for creating the claim and implement the practices. Here’s just one example: when corn is grown for renewable fuels, the carbon intensity of that corn is given a standard score—29 grams of CO2 equivalents per megajoule of energy production. Any industry that wanted to decrease CO2 in their supply chains could focus on incentivizing farmers to document and reduce their CI score beyond that 29g standard. That CI score needs to be indexed to the acre, then to the unit of production coming off of that acre. A bushel with a quantified score below the 29g standard should be worth a premium, that premium should be driven by the delta between 29g and their realized score, and systems should enable grain buyers to properly report their Scope 3 footprint with increased certainty. This future taps into today’s commodity market drivers and that would give farmers incentive to quantify their own score, team with partners and use technology to improve their score, plus level the playing field and encourage adoption across the entire supply chain.
Trust is a barrier for both farmers and buyers when the markets feel like low stakes financial arbitrage, abiding by definitions that don’t span a variety of industries, and avoiding a slap on the wrist is the driver rather than focusing on actually decarbonizing. I want to see incentive providers focus on the actual carbon footprint of a farm’s annual production, establish financial systems that reward innovation and outcomes, and bring about more transparency in the GHG calculations so we can better understand how to improve scores and bring data from the farmgate to ensure trust and certainty. I’m excited for change and opportunities ahead that enable the most important thing in American agriculture: farmer innovation.”—Mitchell Hora, Iowa row crop farmer and Farm Journal Carbon Council member
Last but not least, producers wanted to remind carbon market providers that the trust they wish to build is trust between business partners—and as businesses, America’s farms and ranches require that partners show how much they value “products” like carbon sequestration, clean air, clean water, and other ecosystem services via their bottom line.
“The single most critical component to my carbon decision hinges on the size of the potential revenue stream.
The paper is comprehensive, but pricing of voluntary carbon offsets, layering of government incentives, and the range of prospective prices of sequestered carbon are not discussed.
Absent of this analysis, it is discussion of sentiment, not dollars and cents. At $10 dollars per ton, it’s not a very front and center topic. At $60 ton, you have my full attention. And if the potential is >$100/ton, it’s a priority and I really need a plan!”—Ben Riensche, Iowa row crop farmer and Farm Journal Carbon Council member
Price point is well established as one of the most important factors to bring early adopters into carbon markets—but to truly achieve scale in market adoption, it is one of many, including those discussed above and more.
To read the full Ready or Not? Agricultural Carbon Markets and U.S. Farmers report or learn more about Trust In Food’s work on carbon, visit www.trustinfood.com/carboninsights.